The polyvalent goddess of French crime fiction
The edges of the self blur in my ultimate pleasure read
Fred Vargas, Sous les vents de Neptune (2004)
Fred Vargas, Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand, trans. Siân Reynold (2004)
I count the detective novels of Fred Vargas among my self-indulgences. A French archaeologist and historian, as well as novelist, she draws on history, folklore, and literature to construct intricate puzzle-plots that are sometimes absurd but always entertaining, especially to a nerdy person like me who enjoys a deep dive into Icelandic geography or French mythology or obscure Latinate puns. (Echoes, here, of Dorothy L. Sayers: you either want to know about change-ringing patterns, or you really, really don’t. I do.) I studied some French as an undergraduate so I read Vargas’s novels in the original French, but they’re all available in English translation as well. Crime novels are excellent language-practice: you really have to look up that vocabulary if you’re not going to miss a vital clue. Vargas also cares a lot about things like local idioms and individual ways of speaking and word-play and etymology.
To write this post, I re-read Sous les Vents de Neptune, which literally means ‘under the winds of Neptune’, but was published in English as Wash This Blood Clean from my Hand. This novel takes place in Québec as well as in France. I did find, reading it a second time, that my French skills had improved in the interim, which clarified certain plot points but also removed some of the hazy charm of my first time through. (The casual use of homosexuality to advance a minor plot point struck me as especially dated and clumsy, this time around.) Language plays a central role in this novel, refracted through the French characters’ encounter with Québecois French. I grew up on the edges of French-speaking North America. Although our textbooks taught us Parisian French, my first French teacher was a man named M. Paradis from a Francophone village in rural Maine. Sous les Vents de Neptune taught me that the names I took for granted were in fact distinctively North American. As the French characters spend time in Québec, they drop their sense of superiority and begin to adopt Québecois expressions: their phrases, and their very patterns of thought, begin to meld with their hosts’. (As for myself, I will be keeping “j’ai manqué le bateau,” or “I missed the boat,” which was already one of my favourite Anglophone North American ways of saying I had missed my chance to grasp something essential.)
Sous les Vents de Neptune is part of the Adamsberg series of novels, centered around the Paris police commissionaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his motley crew of colleagues. Adamsberg is in the grand tradition of mildly-flawed heroic detectives: in his case, he’s dreamy and intuitive and vague, preferring to free-associate his way to the mystery’s solution while roaming across Paris on foot. This book takes place a year after he and his faithful second-in-command, Adrien Danglard, have joined a new team. We see the world almost completely through Adamsberg’s eyes, and yet, that team are, in a sense, the real stars of this series.
Vargas creates a rich cast of weirdos, each with their own essential nature and foibles. As through recounting a fairy tale, she reminds us of them in each novel: not the big bad wolf or the sly fox, but the dreamy, inconstant Adamsberg; the anxious, erudite, alcoholic Danglard; the precise but worried Froissy; the crude, violent Favre and his more grounded sidekick Noël; wide-eyed, innocent Justin; and, best of all, Violette Retancourt, the polyvalent goddess, a pony-tailed officer capable of transforming her energy into whatever she wants—and of transmuting others’ fatphobic misogyny into her own superpower. This set-up gets its own energy from friction and change. This is not a well-oiled machine. While the extreme traits possessed by each character give the story the charm of a fable, their random ill-assortment reflects the mundane reality of working life. We may contain multitudes and star-dust, but we also have to work together, fixing the copier and standing around the coffee machine and getting through the day’s tasks. And in doing those things, we change each other. In a certain sense, we become each other, or rather we become a larger entity, a team, and in that process the edges between our individuals selves become blurred.
The central dilemma of this novel is: do we know ourselves, and what we’re truly capable of doing? Adamsberg, we learn, has been shaped by a trauma from his early adulthood, in which his younger brother was accused of murder. Adamsberg has spent years tracking the man he believes was actually responsible, a serial killer wielding a trident, in order to allow his brother to regain his sense of self and, crucially, his place in community. But is Adamsberg’s theory correct, or has he become obsessive, deluded, and even violent in the course of his quest? In solidarity with his brother, he holds himself aloof, seeking to solve the mystery on his own. This is doomed to failure: at the novel’s climax, Adamsberg finds himself accused of a crime and is not able to be sure even of his own innocence.
Redemption comes in the form of community. Forced to rely on others—even when he doesn’t trust them, even when they don’t really like him—Adamsberg discovers that he is actually not separate from other people. As a historian, I am interested in the origins of ideas about individuality and community. I’ve been doing a good deal of reading lately into theories about the essentially porous nature of the self. Human beings aren’t individuals; we’re an ensemble of living creatures, in permanent communion with the flux of material and life around us. Communities aren’t collections of atomized individuals, either. Vargas dramatizes this in Sous les Vents de Neptune, in one of my favourite scenes in all of crime fiction. I can’t say much without giving too much of the plot away, but suffice it to say that it involves Violette Retancourt, a bathrobe, and an unforgettable demonstration of the novel’s central point that no one is an island.
I have obtained Vargas’s novels at various shops and libraries. My paperback copy of Sous les Vents de Neptune bears a price tag from the chain store Relay, which is as good a place as any to buy a book in a French train station. But I’d prefer to draw your attention to the excellent bookshops of Toulouse, especially my favourite French bookshop of all time, Terra Nova, and the wonderful genre-fiction speciality shop Série B which has a large selection of crime fiction. You can find all the Adamsberg novels in English here.